Children encounter many situations where they need to decode cause-and-effect from complex or ambiguous observations to come up with solutions to problems.
For example, a young child hears an adult say "I want to watch the news" and then observes the adult press a button on the remote control. A moment later, the television turns on and a news station appears on the screen.
The next day, the child wants to watch cartoons. How does she know what to do? Is it enough to say, I want to watch cartoons, or is pushing the button on the remote control necessary, too? The ability to distinguish the relationship between the cause and its effect is referred to as causal reasoning.
Using methods developed by Alison Gopnik and colleagues, this video demonstrates the steps required to set-up and perform an experiment assessing causal reasoning in children, as well as how to analyze the data and interpret the results involving scenarios with novel objects.
In this experiment, children ages 3 to 4 are shown interactions involving individual objects such as blocks and a box that can play music when triggered.
Children are asked to identify and use the links between novel causes and the effects to solve a problem. For example, in a one-cause task, only one block will trigger the box to play music, in this case Block A, rather than Block B.
In the more complicated two-cause task, two different blocks can make the box play music when placed individually.
In both the causal scenarios, children are asked to make the music stop, and which block or blocks they remove is recorded as the dependent variable in the experiment. If cause-and-effect has been correctly inferred, Block A will be removed in the one-cause task, whereas both blocks will be removed in the two-cause task.
Prior to the arrival of the child, place two chairs on opposite sides of a table. Gather four wooden blocks of different colors and shapes. Note that only two blocks will be used at a time. Finally, prepare the special device by placing a sound-producing object, such as a wireless doorbell that can be remotely turned on or off, in a box with a sturdy top.
To begin the study, greet the child and instruct them to sit in a chair across from you.
Introduce the device. “Some blocks make this machine play music, and some blocks don't.”
Start the one-cause task by placing one block—Block B—on the device to demonstrate that nothing happens. Remove Block B and place the second block—Block A—on the box, which simultaneously activates the music.
With Block A still on the device, place Block B back on the device and have the machine continue playing music.
Once the demonstration is complete, ask the child if they can make the music stop playing and record the data.
Tell the child that they will now play again. Remove all of the blocks from the box and set up for the two-cause task.
Using different blocks, place Block B on the device, which now causes the music to play. Remove Block B and then place Block A on the device, which also activates the music to play.
With Block A still on the device, place Block B back on the machine. Once again, ask the child if they can make the music stop and record the data.
To analyze the results, categorize the number of children who removed Block A, Block B, both blocks, or none of the blocks and graph the percentages of children who showed the responses for both causal scenarios.
In the one-cause task, most children correctly removed the block, in this case Block A that stopped the music.
Likewise, in the two-cause task, more children removed both blocks instead of just one block. These results suggest that preschool children use previous observations and their causal reasoning skills to solve the problem of how to turn off the device.
Now that you are familiar with how young children solve problems using causal reasoning, let’s look at other ways problem-solving scenarios can be applied across development.
Researchers have found that casual reasoning and cognitive ability in children are linked. For instance, the ability to complete a sequential order with reasoning is used as a marker of cognitive development.
The scientific method is based on using observations to draw inferences about cause-and-effect and to apply those inferences to solving novel problems. Way before any formal science education, young children have the capacity to reason about causal relationships between objects in the world, making them natural mini-scientists.
You’ve just watched JoVE’s introduction to causal reasoning in children. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design causal scenarios and run the experiment, as well as analyze and assess the results.
Thanks for watching!